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King Exchanges Her Saddle For The Barn


Racing fans came to know her when she was riding thoroughbreds and quarter horses at Canterbury Park as Helen Vanek, a woman they could count on to give every ride her all.
Later, when she was riding primarily quarter horses, fans came to know her as Helen King, newly married and riding with the same verve she had always displayed.

Now racing fans in Shakopee are about to meet her _ still as Helen King _ but as a new addition to the training ranks.

That’s right, Helen King _ nee Vanek _ trainer of quarter horses and thoroughbreds and about to saddle her first mount almost any day now.

King has disappointed a couple of folks who used to depend on her to ride their horses or at least gallop them when needed. But she is setting out now to start a new life with her husband of three years, John King, a former bull rider now committed to training horses and at some point in the not too distant future to starting a family with Helen.

“I’m 33 years and if we want a family can’t wait too much longer,” Helen said Wednesday morning.

John King is back in Norman, Okla., taking care of the horses the couple has there, while Helen tends to the eight horses _ five thoroughbreds and three quarter horses _ at Canterbury.

“They are all young horses and we’re bringing them along slowly,” Helen said.

She has horses in her care that belong to Scott Rake, Glenda Sapp, Dean Brenner, her husband, John, and Patricia Pearce, her mother-in-law.

Helen grew up north of Toronto and played numerous sports _ tennis, basketball (she was a 5-foot-4 point guard), swimming, soccer and rode horses most of her young life. “I fox hunted, jumped and barrel raced,” she said. And she became a jockey at 17, riding first at Ajax Downs in Ontario and then Woodbine and Fort Erie before moving to some of the Eastern tracks in the U.S.

King had finished up her morning chores on Wednesday and was seated on a stack of shavings near an entrance to Barn D2. She dusted off a spot for a visitor to sit so they could talk.
She was wearing a big belt buckle that celebrated a 2005 win in the All American Quarter Horse Congress Futurity. “I rode Dianatogetcha for Bob Johnson in that race,” King said.

It just so happens that Johnson is at the other end of the barn from King, so she is not far from a familiar face should she ever need someone to confide in as she launches this new career.
King rode her last race at Blue Ribbon Downs in December, according to the plan she and John have laid out for themselves.

Helen expects to saddle her first horse at Canterbury sometime in the next couple of weeks. It would be nice, she says, if that horse is She’s A Demon, whose owner is Helen’s mother-in-law. The horse is likely to run in Helen’s name to spare her mother-in-law a trip to Minnesota for the requisite fingerprinting. Just the same….

“It’s kind of a family horse,” she said. “So it would be kind of nice.”

As Helen runs her barn and awaits the right time and the right place for her first start, she has had to weather a very personal trialsince arriving in Minnesota.

Helen’s Canterbury meet has started out on a stressful note. With her when she arrived was a 10-year-old companion, Axel, a well behaved, well trained Weimaraner, who will wait on her hand and foot.

Shortly after arriving in Shakopee, a lump on the side of Axel’s neck ballooned to several times its original size. An examination determined that the lump was cancerous. “He’s been with me everywhere I’ve been. This has been hard,” Helen said.

The good news is that Axel underwent a successful surgery and is back in the barn with Canterbury’s newest trainer.

He was right at Helen’s side at feeding time Wednesday afternoon. “Yeah, he’s looking for a bucket to carry,” Helen said. “He’s a working dog.”

Helen does her part. Axel does his…and any day now, they will begin a new career together.


Pastor Ed Underwood has a silent auction planned for the grandstand on Aug. 7-8 and needs donations for the affair. Proceeds will help reduce remaining debt on the backside memorial chapel.


The annual HBPA luncheon is planned for 1 p.m. on Saturday at Longshots in the grandstand. All horsemen are welcome.